MANY in the Church of England have long recognised in George Bell the qualities of a unique and significant public life. His support for refugees from persecution; his opposition to obliteration bombing in wartime; his advocacy for those who sought to resist Nazism in Germany; his pursuit of the ideal of Christian unity — all of these things are acknowledged.
So, what do we make of the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner’s, latest statement, that “Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty, nor can it be safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited”? What can be “safely” claimed about Bell, not least when we decide whether or not to commemorate him in our churches every 3 October?
It is clear that those who judged Bell to be a likely paedophile know nothing very much about the man himself. Their “process” was not only prejudicial but destitute of historical reality. Because of this, they were prepared to believe anything about him. But the credulity of a historian has its limits. History is written not on the basis of flawed allegations, but on the basis of credible sources that have earnt their place in the creation of an authoritative argument.
IN TRUTH, the quantity of actual evidence that allows us to know Bell with confidence is very considerable indeed. It is a clear and reliable body of knowledge which has accumulated, layer by layer, over the years. It is important to state that the allegation made against Bell now stands outside this body, and in no way connects with it.
Bell was observed by those who lived and worked most closely with him daily to live by the highest standards. He lived, as he often stated, “under authority”, as a priest and as a bishop. One of his chaplains, the late Adrian Carey, remembered that the word “truth” was above all others important to him. He even pronounced the word in a distinctive tone.
What we know, above all, is that Bell was industrious. We can see from the sheer volume of his correspondence, speeches, sermons, and publications that this was a man who worked constantly, intricately, and daily.
We also know that Bell was reticent in showing emotion, even affection. His marriage to Henrietta Livingstone was a devoted alliance. Henrietta Bell knew that her husband’s life was his work.
Gossip can come to matter to historians. But no shade of gossip hovered over the small, provincial community in which the Bells lived almost continuously for nearly 30 years. Since then, successive anniversary commemorations have invited personal memories across the diocese and the community, and attracted nothing but the most admiring recollections.
It is significant that Bell’s staff worked with him for many years, respected him, and served him loyally. They were all confident, principled individuals. If Bell had been a serial abuser, it is impossible that it could have been a secret from them, or that any of them would have accepted such a situation without protest or resignation. No such confrontation ever occurred.
Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer, has compared the source of the first allegation made against Bell with the testimony of “Pauline”, who, as a young girl, actually lived in the Palace in the relevant years. “Pauline” at once becomes credible to the historian. She is able to name the members of the household and to capture their patterns of behaviour as we can recognise them in other independent sources. She remembers nothing remotely odd about the Bishop himself. He was very kind. Pauline, furthermore, has no memory of any other girl appearing in the household and its domestic arrangements. This she shares with Bell’s chaplain at the time, the late Adrian Carey, who knew Bell well.
WE HAVE been invited to distinguish between Bell’s public and private personae, to honour only the “good things” that he did, and even to detach his “legacy” from the very life that produced it.
Such discreditable manoeuvres will not do. It is time to stop playing politics with the memory of this man. Bell’s work was something very serious indeed, and everything was subordinated to it.
He was viewed as a controversialist, who challenged national policy. He worked with people who would die for their convictions. He saved many lives.
Would he have placed all the many people for whom he was responsible in jeopardy by his own behaviour? To commit a serial abuse of a young girl on his own premises would have been an act of astonishing recklessness. I cannot imagine it.
After three-and-a-quarter years, it is surely time to make a decision. We might join the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Warner, and their safeguarding managers as they shiver in self-justification under their own significant cloud.
Or we choose a different company and walk honestly as in the daylight in the company of the historical George Bell himself, an innocent man who is now more than ever vindicated by responsible, authoritative opinion.
Dr Andrew Chandler is Professor of Modern History at the University of Chichester, and is the author of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (Eerdmans, 2016).
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